Our Better Nature: Groundhog Day…Again

Groundhog Day is a good metaphor for this time of year, as we stumble out each morning in the semi-dark to defrost the car, wondering what day of the week it is.


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I watched the 1993 film Groundhog Day featuring Bill Murray about a dozen times. Or at least it felt that way. Just as February 2 was on a nonstop loop in the film, Groundhog Day 2023 is likely to feel pretty much the same as all the previous ones. I think it’s a good metaphor for this time of year, as we stumble out each morning in the semi-dark to defrost the car, wondering what day of the week it is. We probably couldn’t handle an exciting holiday right now.

Trailer for Groundhog Day (Uploaded to YouTube by Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers)

The notion that sunshine on the second day in February portends a late spring is an idea that began in ancient Europe. The date marks the pagan festival of Imbolc, halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. In the Celtic world, Imbolc was dedicated to the goddess Brigid (Brigit), the traditional patroness of healing, poetry, hearth and home, agriculture and fertility. She was also a fierce warrior who killed adversaries like a champ. As Christianity spread, Imbolc was supplanted by Candlemas Day, but both traditions embrace the “sunny equals more winter, and cloudy means spring” theme.

St. Brigid of Kildare with a bowl of fire and a spindle (Glaaaastonbury88 via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, Wikimedia Commons)

Mostly because Europe lacked groundhogs, Groundhog Day was invented in the New World, first popping up among Pennsylvania Germans (who were steeped in the Candelmas tradition) in 1887. Though Punxsutawney Phil was the original prognosticating marmot, others like Wiarton Willie in Wiarton, Ontario, and Jimmy the Groundhog in Sun Prairie, followed.

Groundhogs are also known as woodchucks. There’s an old children’s rhyme that asks, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” Perhaps researchers are hard at work trying to get an answer — who knows?

The rhyme suggests that woodchucks are somehow employed in the forest-products industry. In truth, the critters have no interest in wood. Like words such as moose, hickory, and skunk, woodchuck (wojak) is of Native American origin, Algonquin in this case. I don’t know its literal translation, but I suspect it means “fat fur-ball that can inhale your garden faster than you can say Punxsutawney Phil.”

Punxsatawney Phil on Groundhog Day (Chris Flook via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, Wikimedia Commons)

Much as I respect the origin of “woodchuck,” I’m in favor of using “groundhog,” which is more descriptive (also, “Woodchuck Day” doesn’t sound right). Not only do these rotund herbivores reside underground, they’re such gluttons that I’m pretty sure even swine call them hogs. Tellingly, another moniker is “whistle-pig,” referring both to groundhogs’ shrill warning call as well as their voracious appetites.

Native to most of North America from southern Alaska to Georgia, groundhogs are a type of rodent called a marmot. They’re related to other marmots and to western ground squirrels, but in the Northeast, they have no close kin. Given what a marmot can eat, that’s a mercy.

They may be gluttons, but they’re not lazy. Groundhogs dig extensive burrows that are up to 5 feet deep and 40 feet long. Each burrow has two to five entrances. Supposedly, the average groundhog moves 35 cubic feet of soil excavating its burrow, which is upwards of 3,000 pounds. I always wonder who measures these kinds of things.

Mature groundhogs in the back-country typically measure 15 to 25 inches long and weigh 5 to 9 pounds. With access to lush gardens or tasty alfalfa, though, they can reach 30 inches in length and tip the scales at 30 pounds. Now that’s a ground hog.

A groundhog enjoying your garden (Shutterstock)

We may not know how much wood a woodchuck can chuck, but we do know how much ground a groundhog can hog: a lot, especially if beans or peas are growing on said ground. Needless to say, their habit of vacuuming up fields and gardens has given them a bad name in some circles.

Plant rustling is bad enough, but their hole-digging hobby really riles farmers. Groundhog holes often injure livestock and weaken foundations, and their soil mounds can damage equipment. Many a farmer trying to mow hay has cursed the groundhog when their mower breaks down after hitting a soil pile.

A groundhog burrow (Shutterstock)

True hibernators, groundhogs usually den-up in October, their winter body temperature dropping to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and their heart slowing to a few beats per minute. Groundhogs might emerge in February in parts of Pennsylvania, but up north you won’t find one blearily sniffing around for a mate that early.

I used to live in the southern Adirondack region of New York State, and one late March I saw a burrow entrance with a halo of dirt scattered on the snow from where the groundhog had recently burst out, a squint-eyed dust mop looking for love. Who knows if it went back in for a nap after seeing that winter had not yet departed.

I say we pull researchers off the Woodchuck-Chucking Quantification Project, and have them find a way to ensure that Groundhog Day is overcast so we can get an early dismissal from winter.

I wish you all a Happy Groundhog Day, and hope that nobody is forced to repeat this observance until next February 2.

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